Sermon: Advent 3, Year B: John the Baptist
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want us to look back at last week’s Scriptures, from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:1-8), which when placed alongside this week’s have much to say to us about the purpose and the history of the Baptiser
“I am sending my messenger to get the way ready for you. In the desert someone is shouting, ‘Get the road ready for the Lord! Make a straight path for him.’ ” is a quotation of Isaiah 40:3
Someone is shouting: “Clear a path in the desert! Make a straight road for the LORD our God. Fill in the valleys; flatten every hill and mountain. Level the rough and rugged ground. Then the glory of the LORD will appear for all to see. The LORD has promised this!”
It speaks of that still small voice, a prophetic voice that at times appears to be drowned out by the cares of the world, but still needs to be heard. It speaks of setting priorities, of making straight the road, flattening the rough ground and being focussed on the important things: the Advent of the Lord.
Mark’s Gospel, the earliest Gospel to be written about AD60 – around 30 years after Our Lord’s passion, and a Gospel written it is thought for the benefit of the Church in Rome, explaining as it does various Jewish customs and rituals. Tradition has it that Mark’s Gospel is based upon the testimony of St. Peter, and it certainly has the vividness and authenticity of a whirlwind account of those days. Mark wastes no time in his Gospel but introduces John the Baptist in the third verse, in the context of the last great Hebrew prophet, preaching and baptising.
Baptism itself was a practice not unknown to Jewish practice. Washing is both a practical and a symbolic preparation, and later Mark notes that;
Some Pharisees and several teachers of the Law of Moses from Jerusalem came and gathered around Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples ate without first washing their hands. The Pharisees and many other Jewish people obey the teachings of their ancestors. They always wash their hands in the proper way before eating. None of them will eat anything they buy in the market until it is washed. They also follow a lot of other teachings, such as washing cups, pitchers, and bowls. Mark 7:1-4
Modern Islam requires ritual washing in running water before Friday prayers, and in the Old Testament, there are incidences of symbolic washing such as the story of Naaman and Elisha:
Naaman left with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent someone outside to say to him, “Go wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then you’ll be completely cured.”
But Naaman stormed off, grumbling, “Why couldn’t he come out and talk to me? I thought for sure he would stand in front of me and pray to the LORD his God, then wave his hand over my skin and cure me.
What about the Abana River or the Pharpar River? Those rivers in Damascus are just as good as any river in Israel. I could have washed in them and been cured.”
His servants went over to him and said, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. So why don’t you do what he said? Go wash and be cured.”
Naaman walked down to the Jordan; he waded out into the water and stooped down in it seven times, just as Elisha had told him. Right away, he was cured, and his skin became as smooth as a child’s.
(2 Kings 5:9-14)
Baptism, however, was being used in a distinctive way by John, so much so that it became his distinguishing feature and he became known as ‘the Baptiser’.
At the heart of John’s message was repentance: in Greek μετάνοια metanoia. Metanoia has more than just a spiritual connotation: it implies a physical reversal of direction, a change of life and an act both significant, permanent and dramatic. To move from one position, right round to the other. When faced down a cul-de-sac, you would have to metanoia to get out. This is now been layered with a spiritual dimension, and the reversal is no less clear: a life change, a dramatic turning from an old life and an embracing of a new one.
The baptism was therefore symbolic of not just a preparation for the next festival or event: a quick confession to tide you over the eucharist we are about to share, but an all-embracing acceptance of the will of God in our lives. When you take a biscuit, and dunk it in your tea, the biscuit is transformed, it suffuses with the tea and produces something new. John took the people who came to him in the Jordan and dunked them in the Jordan, and as a result, they too were transformed. It was a preparation, but a preparation for all time, a ritual washing in preparation for the baptism of and belief in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In verse 6, Mark writes John wore clothes made of camel’s hair. He had a leather strap around his waist and ate grasshoppers and wild honey. In the Second Book of Kings 1:8, they refer to a wild and hairy prophet, the prophet Elijah whose return was to foretell the coming of the Messiah in Malachi 4:5. This is signified by the distinctive leather belt and hair shirt and them both calling out of the wilderness.
He eats locusts and wild honey. It is not clear whether this refers to the locust or carob bean or the actual insect, which is also a delicacy, but whichever, the significance is the same: he has no roots; he is returning to the scavenging, nomadic ways of the exodus, putting down no roots and planting no crops to survive on. He is totally dependent upon God for his sustenance, and he knows that dependence from the emptiness of his belly.
In our post-agrarian society, we miss this point, but to those who came to him, dependent upon their land and their possessions, it would be clear: a man who sought to return to basics in order to get in touch with God.
He said “Someone more powerful is going to come. And I am not good enough even to stoop down and untie his sandals”. The person who carried your sandals was the lowest slave in your household, the one who would remove the sandals and wash the feet at the end of a journey.
4Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Jesus willingly took up the lowliest role in the household, becoming as St Paul wrote in the kenotic hymn we looked at a few weeks ago, almost like a slave (Philippians 2:5-11), and here John the Baptist says that he is not even worthy of this.
He went on to say “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. John was administering something for the here and now, and there now exists no one who was present in the Jordan who received the baptism of John. However, the baptism with the Holy Spirit continues to this present day; and I don’t just mean on the first Sunday of the Month with the actual service of Holy Baptism.
The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is working within us today. One of the tragedies has been that the power and dynamism of the spirit has been buried beneath layers of tradition and the need to remain inside our comfort zone. The desire to keep the “church family” as a comfortable and non-threatening institution has stifled the action of the greatest and most powerful thing on earth.
The Holy Spirit has the power to work within all of us: to enthuse, to inspire, to lead us in more dramatic and transformative ways than we can ever imaging. As Gabriel says to Our Lady at the annunciation, and which was the reading at the Immaculate Conception last Thursday, “With God, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37).
There are times when our lives appear full of challenge and controversy, when we just want to hide away and avoid reality. Why can that feel like it is overwhelming us? Because we havn’t given God a chance to deal with it.
If our grief remains a barrier to us living a complete life. If our anger causes damage to those who love around us, or prevents us from feeling God’s grace; if our dependency upon drink or other substances poisons not only our body but our soul also. We should use these as reasons for closing ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit. For nothing is impossible for God.
If you are trapped by something in your life, I want you, either as a part of this eucharist, as you come forward at the end of mass to receive communion, or later this week, whilst you are doing the dishes or writing your Christmas cards, to stop and remember those prophetic words of Gabriel from Luke 1:37: Nothing is Impossible for God. Let it be our watchword this week, let the power of that declaration infuse our lives.
May the power of the Holy Spirit which John predicted, which Christ instituted and which his holy church continues to proclaim fill you this week, may the knowledge of the Spirit surround you and penetrate your very being, and if you take away with you only one thing, it should be this:
37 For nothing is impossible with God.